SALEM, N.H. — Chris Christie is running away with support from at least one major voting bloc in his presidential bid.
The only problem is it’s among the least important groups in the Republican primary.
The former New Jersey governor has seen his popularity soar with Democrats. Whereas Democrats once considered him a bully, a threat and an opportunistic apologist for Donald Trump, they now can’t get enough of his new Trump-bashing persona.
“He’s probably the only Republican I would vote for,” said Joe Daly, a Democrat from Warner, N.H., who voted for Biden in 2020 but isn’t sold on a second term. Of those on the right, Christie is “the most reasonable, rational alternative to crazy Donald Trump.”
Christie’s crossover success in New Jersey politics — and what made him a national star circa 2012 — was largely based on his ability to work with Democrats to notch significant policy victories. He aggressively courted Democrats along the way to his reelection in 2013, so much so that his top aides choked access to the George Washington Bridge — the world’s busiest — to punish a local Democratic mayor for not backing Christie (he was not found to have any involvement).
But a decade later, it’s Democrats who are among the biggest boosters of Christie’s presidential bid.
A July New York Times and Siena College poll found 14 percent of Democrats would be most likely to vote for Christie as the Republican nominee — support that soared to 24 percent with Democratic “leaners” included. That’s higher than Christie’s polled in any survey of likely GOP primary voters since he entered the race in June.
And Christie ranked third-highest among Democrats following the first Republican presidential debate, with 12 percent who watched it saying he won, according to a New York Post poll. The same survey said Democrats preferred Christie to be the Republican nominee behind Liz Cheney, the former Wyoming representative who isn’t running for president.
The dyed-in-the-wool Republican who once called Barack Obama a “feckless weakling” while running for the 2016 presidential nomination is now courting any voters who will listen in his redux bid. He went on a podcast hosted by former Obama aides and another co-hosted by veteran Democratic strategist James Carville. Former MSNBC host Chris Matthews deemed Christie “the liberal pinup boy right now” and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote how “amusing” it is to watch Christie rip former President Donald Trump while other candidates pledge to support him if he again wins the nomination.
Even Christie’s campaign-trail pitch — the part that’s not about keeping Trump out of the White House — plays up his cross-party appeal as a Republican who worked across the aisle governing New Jersey.
It’s a message ostensibly aimed at capturing Republican and independent voters looking for a return to a seemingly bygone era of politicking — when “compromise” wasn’t a “dirty word” and when presidents didn’t seemingly support their followers’ calls to execute their No. 2.
But Christie is picking up support from Democrats in the process — something of a career déjà vu for a politician who romped to a second term as New Jersey governor with Democratic support. Interviews with a dozen Democrats across Christie’s recent campaign events in New Hampshire reveal clear interest in Christie, who placed sixth there in the 2016 primary. And many of these former Joe Biden voters are considering switching their party affiliation to vote for Christie in the first GOP presidential primary.
Christie’s campaign claims it’s not directly targeting Democrats — or even giving the across-the-aisle support much thought.
But his team isn’t rejecting it either.
“If Democrats want to donate or vote for him, we’re open to that,” a campaign spokesperson, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, told POLITICO. The spokesperson added that Democratic interest in the moderate Republican should be “expected” given Christie’s background leading a blue state.
That resume hasn’t translated to significant overall support for Christie, though he leaped ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in one recent poll.
Christie is attracting Democratic attention partly as a byproduct of how he’s running his campaign. If 100 New Hampshire town halls was the hallmark of his 2016 bid, television appearances are the cornerstone of his 2024 campaign.
That strategy — getting the former ABC News talking head on any cable news show, radio program or podcast that will have him, regardless of any ideological tilt — is aimed at reaching the broadest swath of potential Republican primary voters. But it’s also putting him directly in front of Democrats.
And those television appearances are translating to on-the-ground interest in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state where Christie is staking his White House hopes for a second time.
Christie’s narrow path to success in New Hampshire cuts through independents who make up the largest share of voters in this open-primary state and who are likely to play a significant role in the GOP contest without a serious draw on the Democratic side.
But there are Democrats who are angry with Biden for pushing to demote New Hampshire in the party’s primary lineup in favor of South Carolina, a more diverse state that propelled him to the nomination in 2020. They’re worried about the incumbent’s age and faculties. And they’re in some cases looking at Christie as an alternative.
“There is a real possibility that a decent amount of Democrats change party to be able to participate in the [GOP] primary,” Chris Sununu, the Republican New Hampshire governor, said in an interview after introducing Christie at an August town hall at the Salem-Derry Elks Lodge.
“But to be fair, it’s really about the current independents. It’s a much, much more significant thing for a Democrat to come forward to the Republican primary,” Sununu said. “I don’t think that’ll be a significant opportunity to go after just yet.”
Interviews with Democrats at Christie’s campaign events reveal interest in the New Jersey Republican that’s rooted in everything from his relatively younger age — he’s about to turn 61, while Trump is 77 and Biden is 80 — and his near single-minded mission to destroy his longtime friend-turned-foe Trump.
Michele and Bill Edwards from Salem said they were lifelong Democrats before unenrolling last election cycle. Michele Edwards said she’s shopping for younger options to keep Trump out of the White House.
“I can’t even believe I’m saying this,” she said, in awe at her own consideration of Christie. “If you saw how many Barack Obama and Biden signs [I had] in my life.”
Debra Newell, a Concord Democrat, is among the former Biden voters concerned with the president’s age. And while she’s not sold on the idea of voting for a Republican, Christie stands out.
“His whole presentation was awesome,” Newell said after Christie’s town hall at the Concord VFW in July. But, she added, “I really wish he had stood up to Trump a long time ago.”
While Democratic support could boost Christie in New Hampshire, pollsters and GOP strategists say it could backfire in the long term.
“It’s difficult to gain traction for the Republican nomination if too much of your support is coming from non-Republicans,” Siena pollster Don Levy said.
Some of Christie’s own supporters are warning him against trying to openly court Democrats, saying such a strategy would run the risk of alienating Republican voters in the GOP primary.
“They’re Democrats for a reason,” former New Hampshire GOP Chair Wayne MacDonald, who chaired Christie’s 2016 New Hampshire campaign, said in an interview. “It would be misconstrued, misinterpreted, as a question of Governor Christie’s party loyalty — and he is a good Republican, he’s a loyal Republican.”
Christie’s rivals are already trying to weaponize his cross-party appeal. Never Back Down, the super PAC all-but running DeSantis’ campaign, issued a memo ahead of the first GOP primary debate in Milwaukee urging the Florida governor to defend Trump from Christie’s attacks by accusing the New Jersey Republican of appealing mainly to Democrats: “I don’t think we want to join forces with someone on this stage who’s auditioning for a show on MSNBC,” the strategy memo laid out for the governor to say.
DeSantis didn’t go there. But Christie’s disdain for Trump — who remains the runaway favorite in the GOP presidential field even as his legal woes mount — still prompted backlash from Republicans in the room that night. Christie was booed by audience members for saying he wouldn’t support Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024.
But there’s precedent for Republican campaigns to target Democrats in New Hampshire’s primaries. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000, for instance, zeroed in on Democratic veterans by sending them letters from veteran leaders in the state. The campaign converted roughly 9,000 votes, according to Mike Dennehy, a longtime New Hampshire Republican operative who worked on McCain’s White House bids, and won the state’s primary.
Still, Dennehy said, that operation wasn’t fruitful enough to try to court Democrats again in 2008. Christie, he said, could similarly find it’s not “worth the time and effort” in 2024.
“It would not be a smart strategy for the campaign to target Democrats without a serious hook,” Dennehy said.
Christie will also need to make it past New Hampshire, the state that ended his presidential campaign in 2016, to capitalize on some of the Democratic interest in his campaign.
Janalee Moquin, a Democrat from York, Maine, is becoming a fixture at Christie’s town halls in New Hampshire. She even brought her 80-year-old mom and fellow Democrat Barbara Moquin to hear him at the Derry-Salem Elks Lodge.
They both voted for Biden in 2020. But maybe not again.
“I definitely will change my party affiliation to vote for [Christie] in the primary,” Janalee Moquin said. “He intrigues me. I feel like I could listen to him talk forever.”